History is apt to throw up curious ironies. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the definitive album in the “Americana” style should have been produced by a band, 4 out of 5 of whose members haled from Canada and not the U.S.A. I speak of course of the Band’s second studio effort, released in September 1969, a true gem of its kind, and my choice for album of the month this May.
I was first drawn to this album by the cover and then by one of its standout tracks “Up on Cripple Creek”. It is fair to say the cover is totally lacking in all pretension. In the centre is a black and white photograph of the Band’s five members stood side by side, staring ahead like sullen mules. Looking at them, one could be forgiven for supposing the very first “Lockdown” occurred in 1969, so in need are these five musicians of a decent haircut and shave. Framing the photograph is a plain brown (perhaps the least commercial of all the colours) background. At the top is emblazoned the name of the album and the name of the group: “the Band”.
The subject matter on “Up on Cripple Creek” is equally lacking in pretension. The song relates the thoughts and happenings of a truck driver and his down to earth lover, “little Bessie”. But if the album cover was startling in its artlessness, the music-making in this track is anything but. What stands out immediately is Garth Hudson’s funky clavinet playing during the verses (a whole three years before Stevie Wonder’s Superstition) which he interchanges masterfully with organ during the choruses. Levon Helm’s funky backbeat drumming and folksy vocals are similarly delicious. As always, the Band’s members meld together on this song to create a truly unique and delectable sound.
Garth Hudson (left) and Levon Helm (right)
Once I heard that track, I was hooked and my appreciation for the album has only grown in the proceeding months. It is full of compelling story telling, thanks in large part to Robbie Robertson, the Band’s main songwriter. One prime example of this is the song “the night they drove old dixie down”. Here we have a poor white Southerner’s account of the end of the American civil war and the Confederacy’s downfall. This is a difficult song to praise at a time when the impetus seems to be to “cancel” certain aspects of American and European history which are troubling to our modern sensibilities. This song, however, is of course not written in support of the Confederacy’s cause but is rather an attempt at capturing an ordinary man’s perspective at a pivotal moment in American history.
They say history is written by the winners, in this song, we have the story from the perspective of the vanquished. We hear first-hand about the harsh winter of 1865 when food supplies were scarce, about the humiliation of defeat and about the bells that rang all evening announcing that final calamity. I think Levon Helm’s delivery helps takes the song to another level, his vocals are extremely affecting and authentic. The rest of Band contribute brilliantly, and the overall effect is deeply moving.
All five members of the Band
Another impressive song is “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”. The song structure is interesting here: alternating an eery and muted chorus section, with a lively, jolting verse section. The song relates (again from a first-person perspective), the fate of a down on his luck sharecropper as he struggles on despite his situation. Richard Manuel’s vocals convey brilliantly the desperation of the narrator, while Robbie Robertson’s wiry guitar-work fits the disquieting feel of the song well.
Overall, I consider this to be a truly great album, melding American styles from country to blues, folk to gospel. The arrangements are original, the lyrics always interesting, and the musicianship compelling. There is no tendency for any one individual member to showboat or wallow in their own virtuosity. Moreover, the album has a consistency of themes that make it a truly satisfying whole. I am very happy to nominate it for AOTM and as I am to once again contribute to this most august segment.
The third edition of the Cedric Suggests 5 Album Favourites is here, and not a moment too soon. Below find 5 of my favourite covers from albums I have been enjoying throughout the month.
Love – Forever Changes 1967
You’ll be aware that I reviewed Forever Changes to be album of the month in March. This was premature of course, it should be album of the year. But that small regret aside, the cover is superbly cool, featuring all members of this diverse band together, in trippy multicolour, in the shape of a heart. Now tell me that’s not excellent. I imagine those enjoying the full psychological and visual effects of the Summer of Love will have spent many an hour transfixed by this cover.
Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different 1974
Betty Davis is a funk monster of indescribable talent. This record is in the running for album of the year, it is steeped in filth and wonder, but we are not here to speak about the music. The cover is excellent, bearing in mind this is 1974, and Ms Davis is featuring a terrific futuristic funk look which borders on drag. Her long glass pseudo chopsticks are also marvellous. And of course who does not love a furry boot? The cover projects the image of a formidable woman who marries her weird with grace and unrelenting originality. One need only listen to the album to be confirmed in this view. Did I mention she was married to Miles Davis?
As legend has it, Miles grew jealous of Betty’s friendship with Hendrix (which Miles allegedly suspected may have been more than that), but Betty’s place in the middle of this intersection of geniuses apparently resulted in more than just divorce filings. By popular account, it was Betty who turned Miles on to Sly and Jimi, which in turn may have been the catalyst for Miles’ most radical musical evolution: the still awe-inspiring Bitches Brew, released in 1970, a year after his separation from Betty. Pitchfork
Camel – Mirage 1974
Nimrodel… I’ll say no more. Playing this for my father ended up with him introducing me to Marillion, for which I am eternally grateful. This cover for me is really excellent and worthy of framing. Aside from being considered one of the greatest prog albums of all time, the cover is so much fun. It is based on the logo for Camel Cigarettes, much loved at the time by GIs and consumed by gangsters in Hollywood movies.
The Original Cleanhead – Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vincent 1969
Blues mastermind Eddie Vincent was likely saddened by his very clean head, but he did not fail to capitalise on it. Men often think baldness makes them less desirable but Eddie rallies against this idea, in his Cleanhead Blues describing exactly why he is bald:
If it wasn’t for you women I’d have my curly locks today
If it wasn’t for you women I’d have my curly locks today
But I’ve been hugged kissed and petted
Till all my hair was rubbed away
So there you have it! The album is spectacular of course but the cover is also worth your attention. We have an awful lot to thank Flying Dutchman for (Super Black Blues for example), so I am not mad at this commercialisation of cover art. The text is subtle and understated and the whole thing is on Eddie’s very bald head. I just find the whole affair wonderful.
Grace Jones – Nightclubbing 1981
Another Jean Paul Goude masterpiece of photography. This is one of my favourite Grace covers. The obsidian skin, matched only by the beautifully dark Armani tailored suit and precision haircut. The only bright spark in this cover is the cigarette Grace is smoking (perhaps echoed in Goude’s later Grace cover of Hurricane). The red eyes and lips, the piercing gaze and the lazer cut hairstyle all make up for an extraordinary, Other and striking cover.
I know what you are thinking: it is not the end of the month! You are quite correct. But May is Nick’s birthday month and he has been bestowed the honour of having Album of the Month in May, as he has done for the last two years. But, that said, I could not refrain from sharing this monumental masterwork with you. It is up there with the best Kate Bush albums (The Kick Inside and Hounds of Love being cornerstones of pop). I shall review each track individualy because they deserve to be heard. Walk Straight Down the Middle is a bonus track available on the CD release. It includes some sterling bass work from Japan bassist Mick Karn and bush making peacock sounds, which I was not aware would cheer me up as much as they did.
It might seem like an uncanny echo of her debut single—another literary character overcome by desire, fantasizing about rolling around in fields—but Bush wasn’t the same singer who’d loaded the gothic romance of “Wuthering Heights” with the life-and-death fervor of teenage lust. “Someone said in your teens, you get the physical puberty, and between 28 and 32, mental puberty,” she said in 1989. “It does make you feel differently.” Pitchfork
The album opens with the title track and some excellent church bells. These are followed by some, shall we say sensual vocals, and some jig reminiscent of the Jig of Life on her previous album.
Love and Anger follows in the theme of the album, this character overwhelmed by complex feelings and a slight deference to her male counterpart, perhaps. But musically Kate is completely in control – the energy of this track is hard to match, it is novel, striking and relentless. Her vocals remain terrifyingly agile and deeply moving. The addition of a wailing guitar on an already busy track only amplifies the greatness of the track.
Take away the love and the anger
And a little piece of hope holding us together
Looking for a moment that’ll never happen
Living in the gap between past and future
Take away the stone and the timber
And a little piece of rope won’t hold it together
The Fog is our executive relief, with vocals similar to that on her previous album. Listen to the guitar which comes in at 0.35 seconds. This ethereal blanket of music carries you through the track in the most… sensual way. The lyrics also have some echo to side 2 of Hounds of Love:
This love was big enough for the both of us
This love of yours
Was big enough to be frightened of
It’s deep and dark like the water was
The day I learned to swim
Reaching Out For the Hand tells of the joy of motherhood and a newborn baby’s tentative reaching our for its mothers hand. This track is home to some of the most exciting and uplifting passages in the whole album. Kate’s rhythmic howling leads to a staggering “reaching out for the hand…” and the violins! One is loathe not to melt from the love and energy in this track at this point alone.
Heads We’re Dancing continues on the energetic march to perdition. Would you believe it tells the story of a night out with Hitler. Bush told Q magazine in November 1989: “Years ago this friend of mine went to a dinner and spent the whole evening chatting to this fascinating guy, incredibly charming, witty, well-read, but never found out his name. The next day he asked someone else who’d been there who it was. ‘Oh, didn’t you know? That’s Oppenheimer, the man who invented the atomic bomb.’ My friend was horrified because he thought he should have given the guy hell, attacked him, he didn’t know what…” Bush then ran with the idea of the worst night out possible with a horrible man that one does not recognise. Listen out for the bass work from Mick Karn (from UK band Japan – a stern favourite of mine)
Deeper Understanding tells the story of Bush falling in love with her computer as alternative lovers turn cold around around her. The Fairlight CMI here is utilised to maximum potential to great an enormous sound, with suitable amounts of Bushean walling in the background. This is perhaps where The War on Drugs obtained their album title A Deeper Understanding from, but that is up for debate. The production is absolutely devastating throughout, with Karn’s bass puncturing the track throughout.
But she’d never sounded more grounded than she did on these 10 songs, most of which are about regular people in regular messes, not disturbed governesses, paranoid Russian wives or terrified fetuses. It was, she said, her most honest, personal album, and its stories play out like intimate vignettes rather than fantastical fairy tales. Unlike the otherworldly synth-pop-prog she pioneered on 1985’s Hounds of Love, she used her beloved Fairlight CMI to produce lusher, mellow textures, complemented by the warm, earthy thrum of Irish folk instruments and the pretty violins and violas of England’s classical bad boy, Nigel Kennedy. Pitchfork
Between a Man and a Woman sees the unexpected addition of flutes. Once again it follows the pattern of the album, creating vignettes of people / fictional character’s lives and displaying who they are, who they want to be and who they end up being. In this sense it is less of a thematic and conceptual juggernaut like its predecessor. The concept of this track is perfectly executed in the track, following the tumult of relationships which are under strain. The music follows the cycle of trauma and even tells the fictional interloper who enters and tries to give advice to the warring couple to back off.
Never Be Mine features vocals from the Trio Bulgarka which Bush fell in love with after hearing a tape of theirs. See them together below.
Okay, let’s talk about Rocket’s Tail. The high point of this album speaks about Kate’s dreams of being in the sky with the stars and fashioning herself a rocket to be able to do so. The rocket takes off and is accompanied by a moment of such musical force that my soul left my body the first time I heard it. The Trio Bulkara can be heard in the background supporting the rocket on its way up and back down some minutes later. Indeed a part of it still does on each subsequent listen. This is Kate at her musical apex, an astonishing work of pure unbridled genius which cannot be lauded enough.
This Woman’s work tells of the imbalance of womanhood in child rearing and the additional effort which women put in to motherhood. In a way it is a beautiful love letter to motherhood and the regrets which parents have. This sensational longing remonstrance is unsurprisingly among Bush’s most listened to tracks. If we listen to the lyrics it is really a very moving ode to women which rather deeply affected this reviewer. It is fitting of course that the original album tracks on this phenomenon should end here. What an excellent and devastating way to finish off an emotional rollercoaster. Kate is still embattled by the warring sentiments of love, lust, loneliness, passion, pain, and pleasure but moulds this anguish into a devastating work of superlative and enduring flawless beauty.
[A Woman’s Work] captures a moment of crisis: a man about to be walloped with the sledgehammer of parental responsibilities, frozen by terror as he waits for his pregnant wife outside the delivery room, his brain a messy spiral of regrets and guilty thoughts. Yet Bush softens the song’s building panic attack with soft musical touches so it rushes and swirls like a dream, even as reality becomes a waking nightmare. Pitchfork
Let me start by stating that I am obsessed with this album and this band. I have referred to this band as Japan’s answer to Kraftwerk on early listens but really the two were contemporaneous. Why was Kraftwerk so successful when YMO are comparatively unheard of? Perhaps because the former embraced a style and theme and the latter leaned into a fun, futuristic funk and an ‘inherent sexiness’. They combined their clear Eastern style and influence with more Western style song structures which is perhaps why it appealed to me so much. The combination of this with the fun almost high fashion visuals did stagger me.
If you’re a more seasoned gamer you may have come across a sterling example in ‘Rydeen’. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s soaring electro-pop epic, taken from their 1979 album Solid State Survivor, was not only a major influence on the development of early video game music (or “chip tune”) but also appeared directly in titles such as Trooper Truck (1983) and Super Locomotive (1982). More so, the song’s incredible marriage of propulsive rhythm and sugar rush melody laid out the blueprint for what was to become an era defining sound not only in Japan but in western countries such as the UK – where cheap Japanese electronics were being retuned to the post-punk atmosphere. Classic Album Sundays
After the drums of the first track, Technopolis, one immediately feels as though they are in for a thrilling ride. This is the apex of Japanese synth pop. Catchy ‘melody’, rapid fire changes and an overall sense of urgency tying the track together. YMO manage to produce an almost otherworldly sound here.
Absolute Ego Dance follows, and provides a quieter but still very punchy track. Listen to the bass line throughout, which I feel underpins the bizarre frond-like dispersal of sound throughout the film. The high pitched synth takes over about one third through. Try to listen and separate what you are hearing. This is multi-layered and complex, while maintaining high energy and infectious rhythm.
Front and back cover
Rydeen, as you will have red above, was featured in several video games, including Sega’s Super Locomotive. The beginning of the track on the album does sound like a train. This is my favourite track on the album. In fact I would go as far as to say this is one of the best, most infectious and appealing synth pop tunes of all time. It was indeed the band’s most successful single. The bridge about halfway through the track lends itself to a terrifically energetic and highly complex final section of the song. So many layers!
Castalia is comparatively mysterious and dark, but still showcases a mastery of synth. The track provides us with a good bridge between the height of energy in the opening tracks and those in closing. When trying to focus on work and needing drive, I tend to skip this track, however I have deigned to listen to it while composing this review.
Behind the Mask is another highlight of the album, the soaring bassline which emerges one minute in and the trippy ethereal backing transport one to another plane, almost. For all its esoteric feel, the track is still incredibly strong and multi-layered.
The band’s decision to deliver their lyrics in English (with help from translator Chris Mosdell) spoke to their ambition to be known as a globalised band, accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. Having grown up in a post-war Japan that was both coming to terms with its isolated past and anticipating its precarious future, its not hard to understand how American imports of jazz, rock, funk, and folk records might have represented a break from the troubles of their parents’ generation. Ibidum
Day Tripper is an audacious cover of a Beatles track which is sure to at once delight and horrify the band’s western audience. High energy, colourful, creative and ultimately alive. This song is emblematic of the ambitions of the album.
Insomnia is the third of three especial highlights on the album for me. The cascading echoing synth is a testament to the capacity of this genre of music. The imaginative strength it must have taken to compose something of this scale baffles me. We know Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of the founding members of YMO, has gone on to compose a variety of soundtracks, notably for the Oscar winning film the Revenant.
In summary, Solid State Survivor is a remarkable, alive, durable album. It brims with adventure and is striking in its agelessness. A true technicolour thrill. YMO had a brief but shining span and have had an enormous impact on this reviewer.
Perhaps the title of this album should be altered to Changed Forever, as this is how I feel listening to Love. Possibly one of the most diverse rock band of its time, Love enjoyed limited commercial success but their third album, Forever Changes, is now recognised as one of the finest rock records of the 1960s. Forever Changes, written in the Summer of Love (and released in the Autumn of the Clinic?) was about anything but love. The album captured something of the opposite sentiment to that espoused by the pastiche hindsight heavy retrospectives about the era. And it was recorded in only 64 hours!
The best record to come out of such turmoil—Love’s 1967 record Forever Changes—is ambitious and prescient, reflecting the cultural shift of the dying ’60s, while tapping into the paranoia that would soon permeate much of American culture in the next decade. Both lyrically and musically, Forever Changes is a snapshot of a turbulent America. AV Club
The opening track, Alone Again Or features the heart rendering line:
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone,
I think that people are the greatest fun,
and I will be alone again tonight, my dear
This sets the album up as being one concerned with isolation in an otherwise plenteous time of choice. “and I will be alone agains tonight my dear” recurs throughout the track, reinforcing the point. The trumpets are gorgeously combined with strings to make for a sumptuous, longing bridge. The guitar work, while repetitive, is precise and pleasantly tuneful.
Arranged By – Arthur Lee (tracks: A2 to A4, A6 to B5), Bryan Maclean (tracks: A1, A4), David Angel (tracks: A1, A4)
Artwork [Front Cover] – Bob Pepper
Bass – Ken Forssi
Cover, Design – William S. Harvey
Guitar – John Echols
Guitar, Vocals – Arthur Lee, Bryan Maclean
Orchestrated By – David Angel (tracks: A2 to A4, A6 to B5)
Percussion – Michael Stuart*
Photography By [Back Cover Photo] – Ronnie Haran
Producer – Arthur Lee, Bruce Botnick
Supervised By [Production Supervisor] – Jac Holzman
A House Is Not a Hotel features some stellar acoustic and bass guitar and vocals from Arthur Lee. The lyrics are a stellar rebuke of the turmoil of war, likely aimed at the discontent fomented by the US war on Vietnam. The guitar solos are just extraordinary throughout. They clash and are disjointed but work beautifully.
Andmoreagain, which I initially thought was a place in Wales, is a more thoughtful, introspective track than the more rock orientated previous track.
The Red Telephone is reminiscent of Syd Barret’s Pink Floyd but is rather more devastating in its subject matter, tackling race, imprisonment and death. The crooning lyrics are somewhat at odds with the dark subject matter, much like the first track on the album. The softness of the guitar is such to highlight the devastating lyrics. In terms of production value, this is off the scale. Violins sit perfectly at ease with the acoustic and bass guitar, managing to sound sumptuous without attacking your ears.
Sitting on a hillside
Watching all the people die
They’re locking them up today
They’re throwing away the key
I wonder who it will be tomorrow
You or me?
The next song provides some comparative light relief but still captures what Pitchfork refers to as “purgatory characterized by paranoia and grievance”, reflecting the mood of the nation at the end of the 1960s. Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale bids farewell to audiences. The AV Club referred to this track as characterising the futility of the sentiments espoused by the typical view of the Summer of Love. It is worth noting that Arthur Lee was convinced of his imminent death hence wrote this album as a final farewell, haunted by the inevitable spectre. This comes through in this track, especially notable when listening to him singing along to the trumpets, very much driven by the beauty of the music.
Eventually, he became convinced that his death was looming and that Forever Changes would be his final statement to the world. So he became a rank perfectionist, expressing all his unhappiness, fear, blame, and hope not only in his dark, discomfiting lyrics, but in the music itself, which draws from rock, pyschedelia, folk, pop, classical, and even mariachi. Ultimately, the album belongs to none of those genres.
This is the truer sound of late-1960s Los Angeles, which was neither a trippy paradise nor a Lizard Kingdom, but a purgatory characterized by paranoia and grievance. Pitchfork
Live and Let Live features a number of 12 string guitars layered together in a way that is meant to disorientate the listener. Somehow Lee has managed to turn the subject matter into the internal monologue of a man planning to shoot a bluebird with a pistol as it was trespassing on his land, a clear and vocal criticism of the US encroaching in Vietnam, perhaps.
You Set the Scene closes the album in a typical upbeat arrangement, masking a greater profound message. That message being that life is short and should be lived with love (sentiment, not the band), depth and purpose. The triumphant horns at the end of this track close the album exactly as it should be closed and leave one almost gasping at the magnitude of what has just been heard.
This is the only thing that I am sure of And that’s all that lives is gonna die And there’ll always be some people here to wonder why And for every happy hello, there will be goodbye There’ll be time for you to put yourself on
Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging And for anyone who thinks it’s strange Then you should be the first to want to make this change And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game Do you like the part you’re playing
This is an album which seeks to expose the lie of the Summer of Love. Love use ingeniously cheery arrangements and devastating lyrics to highlight the disparity between what was heard during this tumultuous summer and what was actually happening. It is a work of profound genius, which has rather changed my life. Forever Changes absolutely lives up to its title and has changed me forever. I hope it will have a similar effect on you, dear reader.
Nick, neé Saint, tasked me with presenting five of my favourite album covers. Now I listen to a lot of music and see a lot of album covers hence this was a uniquely difficult challenge but I have narrowed it down to 5 favourites (of many). This is a sample range and not necessarily indicative. I have many more to share, which I may do in further posts, but my client instructed me to provide you with 5 and you shall be provided 5. In no particular order then:
The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus
I saw a rat on my way home this evening after considering the task Nick had set me and decided it was a sign. Why do I like this? It encapsulates the Stranglers for me. They are in a gloomy country house which is badly lit. Dave Greenfield and Jean Jaques Burnell are at the forefront with Jet Black and lead singer Hugh Cornwell in the background almost. There are four horrifying stuffed animals around the archway which give an added eery feel to the cover. This was what the Stranglers were about, shocking excellence. A much needed and powerful serum at a time when Abba’s Greatest Hits were at the top of the charts.
Peter Gabriel – Plays Live
I bought the vinyl of this album when I was in Newcastle in the Before Time. I bought it on a whim and at my father’s direction. I showed him the cover and said ‘this is pretty cool’, to which he responded ‘this is one of the best live albums ever’. He was correct of course. In and above being a spectacular, colourful, angular and precise cover, with the perfect font, the album is staggering. San Jacinto in particular sticks to mind. What stellar makeup!
ELO – Out of the Blue
Birmingham’s best band, of three, ELO set the bar high for album covers. Frequently space themed and invariably explosions of colour, they rank highly in the spectrum of cover art. I chose Out of the Blue partly because it is my favourite ELO album, with Live at Wembley a close second, but also because this is the first I heard on vinyl. I still have my tattered copy here and listen to it frequently. This is a dazzling, finely conceived, beautiful piece of art, in and above everything else.
Kraftwerk – Tour De France
This was and continues to be one of my favourite albums for revision or knuckling down and getting some work done. Recently I have using Electric Cafe/ Techno Pop as my album of focus but this remains the best album cover of this monumental band for me. The colourful, precise nature of this cover makes it so striking. The brilliant decision of using the colours of the French flag, supporting the Tour de France concept, with the four members of Kraftwerk cycling through the white band blows my mind. Much like the track in the album, the cover is aerodynamic.
Grace Jones – Island Life
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Jean Paul Goude’s photographic masterpiece cover of Grace Jones’ Island Life. This was the last record of hers released on the Island label and is a compilation of her tracks from her albums Portfolio, Muse, Fame, Warm Leatherette, Living My Life, Nightclubbing and Slave to the Rhythm. This cover is iconic for many reasons, the simplicity of the background, the tiny mike, the shocking red garment and of course the striking impossible pose. Having invested in a number of Goude’s books, I happen to know how Goude made this photograph possible but won’t spoil it for you. I will say that that is not Grace’s bottom… Overall, a stunning gob smacking iconic and unforgettable cover.